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Going Social With Mobil Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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A fundamental revolution in higher education is being sparked by the ubiquity of mobile devices used by students, faculty, and administrators. The opportunity is ripe for institutions, instructors, and instructional designers to take advantage of mobile technology to enhance the learning experience. To do this, we need to understand the power on tap, examine fundamental principles, review illustrative examples, and ultimately think through ways to improve the learner experience 



The posting below, a bit longer than most, looks at social learning in the context of the new mobil learning phenomenon. It is from Chapter 7, Going Mobil in the book, The Mobile Academy: mLearning for Higher Education by Clark N. Quinn. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA Copyright (c) 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Online Learning and Liberal Arts Colleges



Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Going Social With Mobil Learning


Key point: Get learners interacting around the concepts.

To this point, we have largely been talking about individual learning, but social learning is powerful both formally and informally. As I have previously noted (Quinn, 2009b), \"Working together helps unearth different views of what's happening, and allows negotiation of shared understanding.\" In that negotiation, there is the opportunity for powerful learning.

We have seen how content delivers learning resources such as textbooks and media files and how capture and compute play a role in practice activities to apply the knowledge; now social learning is the fourth C: communicate. Mobile tools facilitate interaction, supporting not only convenient access but also coordination and communication regardless of location.

The tools for communication are increasing. Microblogging started with Twitter, but now more tools incorporate the equivalent functionality (e.g., Yammer). Wiki tools and Google Docs have become mainstream. Social networks like MySpace and Facebook now have corporate equivalents. This is on top of existing social tools such as e-mail and phones. These capabilities are increasingly appearing in learning management systems (LMSs) as well, and they provide rich learning opportunities.

The dimension of synchrony is important here. Synchronous communication allows addressing the moment of need. Asynchronous communication, however, can be more reflective (Quinn, Mehan, Levin, & Black, 1983). Each has its role. Clarifying questions during a presentation can keep learning on track. Taking time to reflect and contribute over time can develop deeper understanding. On the other hand, inappropriate interruptions might derail a message, and taking too long might mean a missed opportunity. Choosing the right medium for the message consequently is an important issue.

Learning Interactions

In learning, there are two types of social interactions: learner-instructor and learner-learner. In the former case, there is little new added by mobile except the convenience of communicating when and where desired. More generally, instructors can pass on information about upcoming assignments, provide unique feedback about assignments, and answer questions.

The augmented classroom, real or virtual, has now come to pass. Much of the virtual classroom software has mobile interfaces for participation, so Adobe's Connect, Citrix's GoToMeeting, and Cisco's WebEx all have smartphone clients, allowing more flexibility in learners interacting with instructors. And the capabilities of virtual classrooms, such as chats and polls, are accessible via mobile tools in the real classroom; the same principles apply to both, such as checking understanding on an anonymous basis and supporting learner questions, which increases engagement.

One alternative to the regular learner-instructor interaction that can be unique to mobile is when connection can happen in context. In addition to learner-initiated connection for, say, an after-action review, a possibility would be a proactive connection made upon an external trigger such as task completion or at some other signal event. So, for instance, after a task in an internship such as a site inspection, an instructor could be connected to the learner to inquire about the event and ascertain the learner's progress. This would require custom programming, however.

Real power in social learning comes from learner-learner interaction. As mentioned in Chapter Three, social constructivism tells us that when learners are given assignments to collaborate, they express their various understandings, review the differences, reprocess the requirements, and continually engage with the concept to achieve a shared understanding.

The valuable processing that happens when reflecting personally or extending or applying a concept is magnified in social interactions. When learners reflect publicly and read other reflections, more processing is happening. When groups debate a response to an association extension, the processing cycles are tighter; when they work together to solve problems, the dialogue is richer.

Some requirements optimize the outcomes. The right size groups help, as does the right degree of ambiguity in the assignment to foster productive discussion. Dyads have proved useful in performance tasks: one person interacts while another makes more strategic decisions. Teams of more than five can become unmanageable. Variety in teams supports a richer interaction. Nothing yet is unique to mobile, but it is worth repeating the principles.

Also, do not assume that learners know how to work well together. Learners benefit from explicit guidance on how you expect them to work together and your expectations for their contributions. Guidelines such as individually offering thoughts before evaluating group contributions help ensure that all group members are engaging their intellect. Mobile participation can have unique issues, such as appropriate times to communicate and appropriate forms of communication. Texts or calls in the wee hours of the night may be problematic for both instructors and learners.

Existing mechanisms, such as discussion forums via email, can now be interacted with when desired or convenient and are great tools for extending concepts. You can ask everyone to put out their thoughts and to contribute constructively on another post. New tools such as wikis and collaborative web-hosted documents can also be accessed when convenient when mobile-web accessible. Assignments to make joint responses to requests for proposals (RFP), for example, allow the RFP to constrain the task and mimic real-world jobs and require teams to collaborate to interpret the task and create a shared response. The important point is to find a way to have learners interact productively. These are not unique to mobile, but mobile supports new access and the potential for context-specific components. We can also hold office hours with synchronous communication tools, and mobile versions increase the likelihood of participation and may make it easier for faculty as well as learners. Some may prefer conference calls, others may prefer chats, and video conferencing may also be feasible. Mobile increases the potential for inclusion.

Parallel conversations, too, can be seen. Learners can be allowed to use a channel such as a tweet stream or other mechanism to have a simultaneous conversation during a presentation. While it might seem risky to allow ongoing dialogue, the fact is that it can happen anyway, so making it public and exploiting it makes much sense.

For example, an instructor could provide a hash tag for a class, and the students could tweet during the lecture. The instructor can monitor the tweetstream while presenting, and this allows the learners to ask questions and interact without disturbing the presentation. This is very much like the chat window in a virtual classroom, but it is brought back to the real classroom. Learners can participate by responding to the instructor's questions, and vice versa, as well as each other's comments. This may prove difficult for an instructor to manage or feel comfortable with, but folks are using such tools successfully. With practice, you can check and see what learners are thinking and when their thinking is going awry.

Communication is not just language; images, audio, and video can also be shared and commented on. This can be as assigned or as individual contributions to a group project. Learners can discuss shared content, can dialogue around individual assignments, or can work together to create collaborative artifacts. Learners can capture pictures that illustrate (or contradict) concepts, can shoot videos of themselves performing tasks, or can even cocreate a video that represents their understanding of a particular situation and share it with others. Other organizations are creating their own solutions, whether programming, using commercial software, or finding the capability in their existing systems.

It's about deeper learning, though nonlearning socialization is not to be dismissed. Communication can also be about coordinating, making arrangements, as well as establishing oneself as an individual with other interests as well.

Context Specific

Beyond the convenience of communicating when the mood strikes, as mobile supports, a second benefit can be seen where the assignment is in situ, that is, when the learners are at appropriate locations for specific activities or are together and can engage in technology-enhanced activities.

While we can assign collaborative tasks that mimic the way learners might actually have to perform as professionals, we can augment those situations with mobile tools. Thus, the type of online role plays that unfold via e-mail, for instance (Wills, Leigh, & Ip, 2011), could be run face to face, and although the character information could be made mobile, new information could be introduced to one actor via a mobile tool that is different from what another might receive. Learners might perform social tasks such as emergency responders, medical personnel, or any location-specific group task in context. Information available via mobile tools could simulate what learners actually might discover in the location, according to the role each is playing. We will revisit this in the next chapter.

Learners can, of course, use their mobile tools to create shared representation while colocated as well. Learners can collaborate to create audio or video files, for instance, presenting a viewpoint or raising an issue. Coupling instructor observation with tool-captured records of actions would provide rich insight into the learning process.

Another opportunity, building on the idea in the previous chapter on capturing relevant data, is to aggregate data across learners. Learners can discuss how the data varied according to, for example, location or time, and the patterns can be mapped and graphed. Inferences from the data can be a powerful source of discussion about causation and other important relationships in conceptual understanding. The mechanism for collection, of course, would be dependent on the data desired.


The most common forms of mobile communication are one to one: simple messaging system (SMS) (i.e., text messaging) or voice. However, in the case of internet connectivity and web access, more possibilities exist for communication. E-mail is a well-known example, and then there are all the new data-enabled social media tools.

New social media capabilities include what Brent Schlenker, eLearn dev blogger and corporate eLearning strategy consultant, has called the five \"-ables\" of social media (Schlenker, 2009). Social media should be:

•        Feedable (or subscribable), capable of being syndicated out to and followed by others

  • Searchable so that others can find it
  • Linkable so others can point to it
  • Taggable so others can add value to it
  • Editable so others can improve it

The focus is on ensuring that anything created can be added to, shared, followed, and more. Mobile tools can support all these capabilities and can allow a virtuous cycle of learning, creating, and providing feedback.

More possibilities exist when distance learners might be able to visit some appropriate venue near their locations (e.g., a hospital) and have a venue-specific presentation (e.g., a discussion about hospital administration). Learners could discuss the local situation they experience and compare notes. By considering the learning concepts in context, they are processing them in valuable ways.

Instant messaging (IM) allows more than one person to have a conversation, creating a text chat capability. Skype acts as several types of tools, including IM, but also supports voice through voice over internet protocol (VoIP) and even video conferencing.

Microblogging is a relatively new capability and shares the form factor of a text message with the subscription capabilities of a blog. Twitter is one microblogging tool, though some packages may have their own form.

Tools such as blogs and wikis can support mobile access either through dedicated apps or web interfaces. Similarly, media repositories that allow posting of images, videos, bookmarks, or presentations can be mobile accessible, so Flickr, YouTube, Delicious, and SlideShare and their equivalents can be considered. The mobile benefit is in sharing media, or accessing it, when inspiration strikes or when examples exist rather than when conveniently at a desktop computer. Similarly, the opportunity is to see what others have said when they contribute, not when they are tethered.

Integrated social media networks, such as Facebook, typically include a suite of tools from the set of, for example, blogs, wikis, discussion forums, and media repositories. They add the ability to provide an individual profile and link directly to other people and aggregate a variety of media. They also let folks form groups and interact around topics of interest As such, they provide a way for groups to be created to discuss topics and share work as well as to collaborate. Also, both public tools like LinkedIn and Facebook and their proprietary versions provide mobile interfaces.

Trade-offs are involved in using public versus proprietary tools. Learners already active in social networks might prefer not having to go to a different environment to do coursework. On the other hand, security in a vendor-supplied tool may be higher, and free tools have been known to suddenly change requirements (as Ning did when it phased out free accounts).

Regardless of what tool is used, learners may choose certain ones to form their own study groups, whereas instructors can use networks for their coursework to post syllabi and tools like media repositories and wikis for assignments including creating a presentation, document, or video, having a discussion on a topic, or combining the two to share and have associated discussions. For instance, learners could perform and capture the performance on video to share with the class and discuss.

One advantage to using a more general tool than the social networking associated with a traditional course-focused LMS is to build a community of individuals interested in the topic to extend the learning experience for the graduates and provide support for the new learners. Thus, alumni of a course could gather and share tips, which would provide a demonstration for the learners of how this knowledge is put into practice. Such a community could be a valuable source of posteducation employment, feedback to the program, and more.

Context may also play a role; for one, learners might be able to search for someone else taking their subject who is nearby (and has allowed such contact). Context-specific group activities such as a group field trip might also be assigned or at least available. Collaborative tasks might be assigned that are allocated to a specific location.

Jane Bozarth, in her book Social Media for Trainers (2010), suggests a wide variety of ways to use social media to supplement training, but many of these opportunities also exist for formal education and are mobile accessible. Particularly for mobile use, a representative sample includes capturing videos or photos of relevant locations or having a tweetstream to accompany a presentation.


Interacting with others requires a suite of skills, and doing so through technology adds another set. The ubiquity possible with mobility provides some additional considerations for communication, listening, participation, and more.

Mobile communications often feature textese, which is texts using shorthand such as gr8 for great and acronyms like LOL for laugh out loud (i.e., funny). Driven by character limitations and the difficulty of using mobile keyboards, such language can be expected to surface in mobile tools as well. This may not be a problem, but reflection on appropriate communication style for the context deserves explicit discussion.

A different problem may exist when communication tools are ubiquitous. What constitutes listening, if multiple channels are being used? Does looking at a tweetstream while someone is talking help or hinder processing? These questions are worth having a conversation about.

Similarly, the question arises of what can be considered as participation. Does contributing in class mean talking, tweeting, or sharing mind maps? What are the expectations? On principle, legitimate participation ought to include the ability to ask questions and to offer opinions. What channels are to be considered as appropriate and how such contributions are evaluated will make differences.

Mobile etiquette may also be different. Certainly, whether a cell phone is turned off or not increasingly signals the importance of a communication. Does a lecture count? If the mobile device is off, it may not be able to participate via microblogs (e.g., Twitter), yet while you might not want a phone ringing in class, you might want learners to be able to chat. You will need to reconcile the trade-offs to determine what's feasible. Working with the students provides an opportunity to talk about etiquette more broadly, particularly compromises and what it means for learning.

For each of these issues, policies can be set for the classroom, but a discussion of what was considered and how a decision was made can lead to the broader discussion of what learning means in a mobile era and how the parameters may change in different contexts. What constitutes institutional policy versus a particular instructor's may also be worthy of explicit consideration.


The benefits of social learning are more powerful processing. Mobile devices offer the ability to interact more flexibly, wherever and whenever a learner has inspiration. Learners can communicate and collaborate whenever the thought strikes.

Students can share thoughts, respond to others, and work together, all of which have useful outcomes for learning. Inherent to mobile learning, however, is the ability to do things unique to a location or time, whether capturing and sharing personal experience or working together. Further opportunities come with the ability to plan activities that require cooperation or collaboration in a particular context, the topic of the next chapter.


1.        What social media capabilities are available in your existing learning infrastructure? What are the mobile access mechanisms for those capabilities?

2.        How can you use mobile tools to get learner participation in class? What would they do? How would it be incorporated?

3.        What are some locations it would make sense for learners to visit collectively? What could they do, and what would the learning outcomes be? What are the mobile tools they would use to accomplish these tasks?


Consider this list as a prod to considering alternative mechanisms:

  • Voice
  • Chat
  • Microblog
  • Blog
  • Wiki
  • Media sharing (images, audio, video, links)


Quinn, C. N. (2009b). Social networking: Bridging formal and informal learning. Learning Solutions Magazine.


Quinn, C. N., Mehan, H., Levin, J. A., & Black, S. D. (1983). Real education in non-real time: The use of electronic message systems for instruction. Instructional Science, 11,


Schlenker, B. (2009). E-learning 2.0: The 'E' is for everybody. The eLearning guild online forum: E-learning 2.0 and beyond-Practical real-world solutions using new technology approaches.

Wills, S., Leigh, E., & Ip, A. (2011). The power of role-based e-learning. New York: Routledge.